Pala Winstead has just murdered herself.
She lies crumpled in the ditch, skin blue and cold in the glow that hangs upon the highest eaves. The last moments of her assaulter’s struggle still hum back and forth in her brain, that frantic darting of eyes, the cries of “no” that resonate still in her very own throat.
Her shirt is already beginning to soak in the mucky water, and her phone is vibrating in her pocket.
Both phones are. Both phones, in both pockets.
Standing amidst the flicker of waking streetlights and the hum of car engines, the girl finds all the stories turning on their heads.
She shrinks away, trying not to scream. Screaming will only bring the police, and the police, she realizes, are the last thing she wants to attract.
She tugs at the hem of her sweater. Her own dead countenance stares back from the ditch, hair soaking up the liquid of the black puddle on the old alley pavement. It is five minutes past sunset, and the clouds are coming—maybe if she leaves her here the rain will wash the body away without a trace and she can go back to being an ordinary schoolgirl—
Pala fishes out her ringing phone, synthesiser notes humming in her teeth. When she taps the green Answer icon, both phones fall silent—hers, and the corpse’s. She brings it up to her ear, averting the eyes of her doppelganger.
“Pala, are you on your way?” Panic reignites in her chest. Ms. Mahi’ai doesn’t know what she’s done. Of course she doesn’t know. “The light-up’s starting soon.”
“Yes ma’am, I’ll be there,” she says, and as soon as the receiver clicks her jittery hand slots the device back into her pocket, mind whirring.
Think like a murderer. You’re a murderer now.
Havaiki is a small island, so far out in the Pacific it sometimes forgets there is a world beyond it. The only reminders arrive in the form of small cargo ships, arriving in the port once a day. There are orchards and chicken farms here, and there are fishers whose daily catch is more than enough to feed every citizen. There is a central market where these fish trade hands, so self-sufficient it almost never sees foreign currency.
But not everyone lives by the port, and a working internet connection is not something everyone has, so it becomes difficult to remember that beyond the vast expanse of water surrounding the island, there is an entire world of people, living lives that do not intersect with theirs.
Within minutes, Pala has managed to empty the contents of a trash bag. With every muscle clenched and her breath held so tight it hurts the inside of her head, she slides her cold body inside it. The corpse is pallid and she does her best not to notice the faint warmth, still perceptible, in her other-self’s arms, as she slips each limb into the rustling plastic and lifts it so she slides in deeper. Her other-self’s uniform is rumpled, and she stinks of urine, and she would feel ashamed on her behalf if terror were not constantly screaming for her attention.
She kicks clinking cans, fruit rinds and empty milk cartons over the bag, until it is buried in a heap that looks almost innocuous. Without another glance, she dashes out of the alley clutching at her mouth, heartbeat roaring inside her ears.
Pala feels nausea press on her skull as she sprints through circles of dim streetlight, away from the dark alley, sling-bag bumping on her waist. She can barely hear the cars for all the blood rushing in her ears and the noise of her footsteps, suddenly the only sounds in the world. Every few seconds, the image of her own face in the gutter, bluer than death, crashes in on her thoughts uninvited, and she gulps, pressing forward.
Flesh is a lot stiffer and less yielding than one would assume—especially when that flesh encompasses the windpipe, and is held sturdy by a column of bone. The ghost of that sensation—of the windpipe resisting the pressure of her grip—sends another gush of nausea over her, and she falters to a stop, the circular blue signboard marking the bus stand going out of focus ahead of her.
With a shiver, she swings to a side and vomits on the grass beside the pavement, knees buckling.
For a minute Pala stands and coughs, waiting for the world to settle, like sediments at the bottom of a cup of tea. She spits the taste of lunch and acid into the grass and wipes her mouth with her wrist, fighting to find her footing.
Her phone beeps to signal a message. She shakes her head, and resumes her slow trudge.
Not a car passes, as Pala walks the remaining distance to the bus stand, passing before a row of small houses, each painted a different colour, their windows glowing gold.
Once she has arrived beside the round blue signboard, she closes her eyes and listens to sounds in the warm evening. The chirp of crickets stirs from the grass, the treble to the deep bass of the cars in the southern town centre. A plate clinks inside one of the houses.
A second phone beep startles Pala out of her reverie. Fishing her phone from her pocket, she opens the inbox and finds the last two messages, both from her boss:
someone here wants to see you
The five-to-nine shift is only the second-most-eventful. No one has ever come seeking Pala specifically before. At once she thinks of the body, and a new surge of frigid fear squeezes her stomach—but the pink line bus rumbles in right then, doors gleaming her reflection back at her, and the thought is crushed by the noise.
She swallows again as the doors hiss open. “Good to see you,” says the conductor with but a glance, the golden sun gleaming on his sweat-slick brown skin.
The lone two passengers on the bus are both staring off through their respective windows at the roadsides. Shoulders sagging, Pala begins to make her swaying way across the deck as the bus engine grumbles back to life.
The pink bus line is the newest of the seven on the island: it opened earlier this year in answer to popular demand, running in a loop between the southwestern coast and the southern town centre.
She would have far preferred the colour orange for the line, but citizen preferences don’t matter terribly much to the town council when they’re labelling their bus routes. She supposes it’s no big deal. Perhaps the eighth line will be orange.
Every now and then, news comes of strange happenings in the area. Apparitions, vanishing monuments, spots where time loops inexplicably. The papers are full of these stories, and they are just common enough that the citizens do not think anything of them. Mystery and intrigue are but daily inconveniences, and being situated this far from the rest of the world, there is no one here who can tell them otherwise.
Pala tries not to scuff her palms on the wooden seats of the bus as it bumps along towards the southern town centre. Putting one leg up on the facing seat, she unbuckles her bag flap and fishes around for her notepad and pencil.
The first ten pages are single-ruled and filled top to bottom in scribbles that almost resemble maps. On the third page, she purses her lips and flips her pencil, scratching out the squiggles that demarcate the pink bus route so she can redraw it, carefully, as the bus proceeds.
For months, she has been trying to draw the town the way she sees it—trying to capture something she cannot really picture in physical dimensions. They all think she’s making it all up, the wrinkling of the streets, the hairline cracks in the garden earth. They all do, except for—
Her phone beeps again, and this time she feels calm enough to answer.
where are you?
Fen. She smiles and types her reply:
on my way to work
And then he answers:
there’s a pink haired girl asking for you
she says she’ll kill me if you don’t come
Dread seizes her heart so hard that she chokes.
The riverside hotel grows into view from around the last rippling bend of the road. The riverfront façade is already lit for the evening–with what manner of image or message, she can’t see—but the hotel on the facing side of the river is also lit, and it bears a lotus in red, green and yellow, glittering on the water, pockmarked by boats.
Pala springs from her seat before the bus has come to a stop. Dashing to the door as it swishes open, she leaps from the top step and lands with a thud that jars her ankles, stuffing her notebook in her pocket. She sprints up the pavement to the red side entrance and down the dim carpeted hallway, which still smells of old roses, to the servicer room in the back.
She grins briefly when Fale’s stocky blue-uniformed figure appears in the doorway, but when the woman turns, her face is taut, and she gasps out, “Miss Mahi’ai wants you in her office!” and Pala feels the smile melt from her face, dread mounting, as she thanks her and turns for the corridor again, breath burning in her throat.
At once it is apparent that something isn’t right: almost as soon as she enters the office corridor does she notice an acrid stench in the air. She clamps a hand over her mouth and starts to gasp like a fish.
“Ma’am? I’m here!” she calls out. “Ma’am?”
Then Pala notices that the office door is wide open and through the doorway, she sees Miss Mahi’ai look up when she shouts. Her gaze is not bright behind her glasses. She stands like a statue beside her desk, both hands tucked behind her back, and gauzy smoke swirls from one visible corner of the desk, the papers around it charred.
“Pala, perfect,” she says without feeling.
As Pala thunders into the room, her eyes grow wide. The manager’s seat is occupied by a person she has not seen before: a tall girl of ashy-brown skin and a warrior’s build, hair pulled back in a ponytail that is both too pink and not pink enough. Her clothes are foreign, and a tattoo trails a dark line from her right eye to a dot in the middle of her right cheek, distorted by her grin—like a teardrop.
“You’re here!” the strange girl exclaims with a thrust of her chin. She reaches under the table to lift something heavy that yelps—something that turns out to be someone—someone she knows too well.
He dangles by his black locks from the pink girl’s grip, eyes squeezed shut and wet with tears. “No,” he mouths. “No, no.”
“Fen,” Pala squeaks in reply.
“Shush, it’ll be over soon!” The pink-haired girl jabs a metallic rod at Fen’s cheek, still grinning. “You care about this boy, don’t you?”
“Who are you? What do you want from me? I don’t understand–” She digs her fingers into the fabric of her sling-bag and her eyes dart to Miss Mahi’ai for instruction, but the woman has retreated from the desk, and she only shakes her head.
“Well, Pala Winstead, you have a certain skill that I would very much like to use,” says the girl. “In exchange for this boy’s safety, I would like to you to come with me on a long journey. It would please me very much for you to comply. Otherwise—” She twists the rod against his cheek, fingers tightening in the loops at the other end— “boom.”
In the silence that follows the single syllable, the thin smoke wafts from the table, and Pala notices, for the first time, that Miss Mahi’ai’s red ceramic mug lies in fragments among her papers.
Everything is making itself known all at once. All the things she was afraid of. All the things she knew deep in her core. And the universe is suddenly more than even she, with her wild imagination, can fathom.
“Yes, okay, I’ll go!” It barely takes her three seconds to come up with her answer. She has begun to sob. “Why are you doing this? Who are you?”
“Well, Pala, I am a very thorough researcher. And you, you are a Traveller.”
“I don’t travel,” says Pala in a trembling voice.
The girl throws her head up in a laugh. “Not in the regular sense of the word, you don’t!” she exclaims. She has stood, and her gleaming rod-tool—suddenly more sinister than before—is still pointed at Fen’s head. She shoves him from behind the desk, towards Miss Mahi’ai. Her gaze pins Pala in place. “I’ll make sure you are treated well, as my premier servant. Kalani Mahi’ai over here has already agreed to the transfer.”
“Let me follow her,” gasps Fen as soon as the girl releases her grip. “I…I know what this is about. The…maps. The holes and folds and tears. Pala's told me everything.”
The pink girl’s eyebrows rise, but she does not seem particularly impressed. “Is that so? Well, I have no need for two of you. A Traveller’s what I need, and that’s what your friend is.”
He steeled his face. "Let me come, please."
She slides the strange metal tool into her belt. “It would mean one less witness to worry about.”
After a moment’s pause, she stretches an open hand in Pala’s direction, and snatches Fen’s shoulder in the other, scaring a gasp out of him.
“Hold my hand tight. We leave in a minute.”
“Travelling?” Quaking with every step, Pala reaches out to grip the girl’s calloused palm. The smoke threatens to choke her. The pink girl’s fearsome brown gaze makes her head pound. Miss Mahi’ai and the office seem farther than ever, and her other hand instinctively slips into her skirt pocket, to check that her notebook is still there.
“Think of something specific but unimportant,” says the girl. “Maybe not so unimportant, because the more important it is, the quicker you’ll be done. An object, a feature of a place.” She pauses, gaze burning into Pala’s. “Well? Anything—a painting, a flower, a piece of furniture in your home. Quickly now.”
“I’m thinking—I’m thinking—“ My double. My corpse. The person I killed. “I’m thinking of something.”
“Good, now think about all the ways it’s important. Think of all the things that give it meaning. And then think about the universe next door, the deeper one, the downstream universe.”
“Downstream?” Pala echoes, going breathless.
All at once, the clues connect in her mind, and suddenly she understands. The topology. The sinkholes and infoldings and tears that have haunted her all her life.
It’s all real. She is right. They are not alone.
This universe is pressing against another.
“I killed myself!” she shouts, thinking of the agony of looking in her own dying eyes, her hands wringing a windpipe, and the fetid taste of vomit, and she wills herself against the straining fabric of the universe—
—and then the space around them buckles and warps inward—like when a needle punches through cloth—and then they’re not there anymore.
The thundering of the sea suddenly sounds much closer than it should be, the wind more violent. And when Pala opens her eyes, they are assaulted by daylight, her nose by the clawing smell of brine.
Her captor’s fingernails are digging deep into her palm, and she feels tears spring to her eyes.
They stand on the booming coast of somewhere new and warm. The sky is dim overhead, and the clouds dance in a way she has never seen before—almost ghostly, like smoke stirred by wind. A black and purple banner stands planted in the earth a few paces back, and beyond that, a grey brick road divides them from a cluster of tall black tents wreathed in purple designs.
“I didn’t know you could…do that.” Fen is still regaining his breath.
Pala stares at her palms, starting to sag with exhaustion that seems to have come from nowhere. She isn’t unfamiliar with the feeling, of being forcibly removed from a reality that makes sense to her. But she’s never been here before, nor has the wind ever felt so strong. “Did I? Was that me?”
“I imagine you’d be able to tell,” says the pink-haired girl with a grin. Already, she is marching towards the road, ponytail swishing, her back to her two captives. “How marvelous our ability to store past experiences in our minds, to recount—even recreate—them at will! Memories compel and instigate. They are the reason we act. So much power is encapsulated in them. So much power.”
Fen seems entirely uninterested in what she has to say. “What did you mean?” he gasps out instead, reaching out to grip Pala’s hand with both of his own. “That you—killed yourself. Why did you say that?”
She blinks back. “Kill myself?” she replies, trembling. Something tugs at her memory. Fear. Her stomach roiling. But she can’t seem to recall anything more. “I…I would never do that.”